A Saint for All Seasons: St. Thomas More

“I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.”

If you had money, power, and status second only to the king of your country, would you be able to lay it all down for the sake of conscience and faith? Would you possess a trust in God greater than your many extraordinary possessions? 

Our Lord says in the Gospels, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19-24). Even a cursory glance at the shenanigans of those in the higher echelons of fame and power in our culture would certainly vindicate the words of our Blessed Lord. However, every now and then, there comes along a rare camel of peculiar size and width that miraculously makes it through. 

Saint Thomas More, whom we celebrate on June 22, is a gallant example of such an exception.

Brilliant intellect
Thomas was born in London in 1478 to a lawyer, Sir John More, and his wife, Agnes Graunger. Saint Thomas was educated at St. Anthony’s school, which was then considered one of London’s finest educational establishments. At the age of 13, he was placed in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir John Morton. 

Thomas’ cheerful personality and brilliant intellect won him the attention of the archbishop, who saw great potential in the young Thomas and decided to send him to study at Oxford. From this launching point, he went on to become a noted scholar, statesman, diplomat, and renowned apologist for the Catholic faith during a time when the Body of Christ was being rent to pieces by the leaders of the Protestant revolt in Europe. 

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein, 1527.

Henry VIII's chancellor
More certainly had many accomplishments in his life, but he is most remembered for the delicate drama involving Henry VIII and his attempts to procure a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to provide him with the male heir he so vehemently desired. With the help of some of the English prelates, Henry attempted to wheedle the Pope into granting him a divorce, but the Pope refused. 

In 1529, Henry chose now-Sir Thomas to succeed Cardinal Wolsey as chancellor of England. By this time, Sir Thomas had acquired a reputation of being a man of many feats, learning, and holiness, and was greatly admired by the people. Henry probably saw him as a valuable ally in this most exalted position in his court. 

Meanwhile, the King continued trying to persuade the Pope to give him the dispensation he wanted, but the Pope remained steadfast in his refusal. Henry finally decided to break with the Church of Rome and established the Church of England, making himself the supreme head. By this means, Henry secured the coveted divorce.

First loyalty
As anyone who has watched the classic film “A Man for All Seasons” knows, Sir Thomas was a loyal Englishman and servant of the King, but his first loyalty was to God and His Church. King Henry’s actions were more than he could abide. Sir Thomas quietly resigned from his position as chancellor, giving up the status and comfortable living it afforded him, and went into a type of seclusion to write and prepare, as he put it, “for the life to come.’’ 

King Henry knew well the opposition to him, implied by Sir Thomas’ silent resignation. So he set out to persuade Sir Thomas to give up his convictions by threats and offers of money and glory, until he finally took More’s property and freedom and had him imprisoned in the Tower of London. There, Sir Thomas faced great suffering and certain doom.

More was eventually brought to trial at Westminster Hall, a place he knew very well as a statesmen and lawyer. It was there that he was arraigned and, through a not-so-subtle combination of trickery, jury tampering, and overly contrived legal gymnastics, he was finally condemned to death for high treason. 

Up to this point, Sir Thomas’ primary strategy had been to remain silent, but in the end, before passing sentence, his unjust judges bid him say his piece. He finally spoke. Sir Thomas’ primary objection was that Henry was assuming for himself an authority that Christ, whilst He lived and walked this earth, had given to St. Peter and the subsequent Bishops of Rome. For this and for his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to King Henry as Head of the Church of England, Sir Thomas was condemned to death. 

“I die the king’s good servant but God’s first,” he said. 

The day before he was killed, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his daughter, Margaret. “Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you, and for all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven.” He was beheaded on the morning of July 6, 1535.

Faith and trust
In the face of such a witness, it behooves us to ask ourselves, “Do I possess the depth of faith and trust in God to do what is right even if it could mean losing all my earthly possessions, good name, friendships, and even my life?” 

We don’t simply wake up one day and possess that kind of virtue. It is the fruit of a life of prayer, faithfulness, and bearing our daily cross, being mindful of our complete dependence on God and also the importance of continual personal effort. 

Yet we can follow in the footsteps of this great saint, because all things are possible with God, as Jesus said, and He is ready to pour out His graces in abundance to all those who ask Him for them.

Saint Thomas More, pray for us!


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